Chalmers St – Consulting


Process improvement often fails at the working-level adoption of a new set of tasks. The adoption of improved processes is the result of good change management. Although, change management techniques often stop short of prescribing the day-to-day management activities needed to achieve process adoption. It is a challenge we have all faced and worth considering further.

Last year one of our consulting projects ran smack into process adoption challenges. We developed a new user request form to better control the flow of work to a support team. On the surface, this is a simple change. We create a form that people like and we tell the support team not to do work that comes through other channels. If only if it were that simple! In practice, neither side was willing to comply. Users went around the form and support team members accepted work through the usual channels. This occurred even after training, top-down support, and a communication campaign touting the benefits of the new process. Why did the process fail to become adopted?

Culture is key. We often hear this from experts in change management and continuous improvement. The culture has to be open to this new tool, process, or way of working. Culture, culture, culture! I hear this all the time from the companies that I help. They tell me that this is the root cause of their process adoption woes. Maybe… but the term “culture” is too broad. It is too easy of a scapegoat. First, we need to dive into the mechanics of culture.

The best explanation that I have received about culture is that it is the result of a series of consistent reinforcing experiences. So, rather than saying culture when we find resistance to change, we should investigate the consistent reinforcing experiences within the daily work of the company. In the case of our poorly adopted request form, we were up against reinforcing experiences of a requestor using any means available to get their request at the head of a line. As well as a support team that was very accustomed to reacting to immediate demands due to being penalized when they did not.

What is a process engineer to do to overcome this “culture?”

Given that culture is created by a series of consistent reinforcing experiences, it can be changed by deliberately creating new experiences aligned with the change. A few years back I did a project for McDonald’s. It was a fantastic experience. Speed is nearly everything at McDonald’s during the morning rush. The amazing thing is that McDonald’s brings in brand new employees, many first-time job employees, and they immediately adapt to this culture. How is it possible that a company of this scale can consistently bring in new people and within days they have conformed to the culture?

These experiences are a result of the system we design. At McDonald’s speed is everything and a casual observer can see this in the way everything is designed. Behind the counter work is typically organized into two production lines, work instructions are simple, product variation is narrow, time is visible, and speed is visibly and constantly compared against other restaurants in the area. Supervisors reinforce the importance of speedy delivery. The system deliberately reinforces behavior that is expected from their teams and this, in turn, creates a culture that will be welcoming of any process improvement that is speed-oriented.

For a process to be adopted it either needs to match the existing culture or the system needs to be redesigned to address the experiences that will resist the adoption. In simple terms, we need to know if the process change we are implementing will be pushing upstream of the typical behaviors inside the company. The typical technique to address this is called “Force Field Analysis.” It forces us to think deliberately about the behavioral forces we are working against so that we can build tactics and communication that will target the forces against the adoption. In practice, as a change agent, you need to give managers the tools (reports, interactions, etc)  to identify where a process is not being adopted, listen for the whys, and discuss changes to reinforce the new behaviors. These reinforcing experiences have a lot of inertia and will not change overnight. It takes repetition, consistency, and a great deal of time. We have to create a series of new experiences that contradict the old ones and align with the new ones.

So how did we resolve the adoption problem with our client? The work is still in progress. We identified the reinforcing experiences working against us, we communicated why the change is good for the team, we communicated why experiences will be different, we created reporting to track adoption and reinforce it with the team, and we worked with top leadership to clarify their role in making the adoption happen. The rest is persistence over time. I often tell Green Belt candidates that the main difference between Green Belts that get certified and those that do not is persistence. The root cause of poor process adoption is not culture. Culture is the scapegoat. The misalignment of experiences and lack of persistence in making the change is often the real failures. Giving up is the root cause of poor process adoption. So long as the company continues with its persistence the change will eventually stick. Good luck with your work and process adoption!